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‘Imitation Game’ holds secrets within secrets

There are secrets within secrets in “The Imitation Game.”

The biggest secret of all in this thoroughly engrossing picture is the British wartime effort to crack Nazi Germany’s supposedly uncrackable military code encrypted by the so-appropriately named Enigma machine. The code-breakers are informed upfront by MI6 that if they breathe a word of their work to outsiders, they’ll be executed for treason.

Another secret, closely guarded by the Brits’ chief code-breaker, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), is that he is gay. In that nation at that time, and for years afterward, homosexuality was illegal, punishable by jail time or court-ordered chemical castration.

As a schoolboy, the only way Turing can convey his feelings for another student is secretly, by messages in code. During the war years, he stays deeply closeted.

Spy games are also being played in “The Imitation Game,” with British intelligence suspecting there may be an undercover agent operating in the heart of the ultrasecret code-breaking program operating out of a facility known as Bletchley Park.

Fascinating, all of it. And largely true.

Director Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian making his first English-language movie, and American screenwriter Graham Moore, making his feature debut, have crafted a thoroughly British thriller with a heavy component of social commentary and a great deal of humor. And the acting is impeccable.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal is a portrait of the arrogance of brilliance. Turing is by far the smartest guy in the room — any room. Confident in his genius, he makes what seem like boasts early on, asserting he’s one of the best mathematicians in the world. But it’s not a boast if it’s the stone-cold truth. Told by a high-ranking officer the Enigma code is unbreakable, he calmly declares, “Let me try, and we’ll know for sure.”

That attitude rubs officialdom and other members of his decryption team the wrong way. No social skills whatsoever. At least at first.

Cumberbatch’s great achievement here is that he finds a way to invest this cold fish with surprising warmth. That warmth is an outgrowth of the abundant humor in the screenplay. It makes a joke out of his statement that he doesn't know what a joke is, and then later proves it when he actually tries to tell a joke. He obviously read the joke somewhere and repeats it in the hopes of ingratiating himself with his colleagues (someone told him to do this), but he has no idea what he’s talking about. His awkward, bumbling delivery is paradoxically funny.

Underneath the brilliance — and the accompanying arrogance that is a defense mechanism against the misunderstanding and mockery of those less intelligent than him (which is most people) — is a hidden humanity. That comes to the surface when he champions a young woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, very engaging), who is almost as smart as he is. Marginalized by the endemic sexism of the day — she shows her smarts in a funny scene where she solves a crossword puzzle test (an indicator of a cryptographic ability) faster than any male test-taker. That’s all Turing needs to insist she be on his team.

They’re two odd ducks, outsiders, and together, gradually, they click emotionally, and that connection humanizes him further.

Tyldum shifts the picture’s focus from Turing’s school days to wartime to the postwar police investigation. Moving smoothly back and forth in time, “The Imitation Game” gradually reveals a man of great complexity, an unlikely (and often unlikable) hero, triumphant and defeated in equal measure.

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